Feature Interview with David Eger
No one today has been more involved with all aspects of competitive golf than David Eger. As a player his experiences range from playing on the PGA Tour for several years to winning the 1988 U.S. Mid-Amateur and representing the U.S. on two Walker Cup teams. As an administrator he enjoyed time as the head Rules official for both the PGA Tour and the USGA. In both those roles his responsibilities included preparing courses for various events, whether the Tour Championship at Pinehurst No. 2 or the U.S. Open at Shinnecock Hills. His preparation of such courses was often characterized by the players as difficult but quite reasonable. At the 1995 U.S. Open at Shinnecock Hills, for example, Corey Pavin won with a score of even par, but there was not a complaint to be heard from the players.
1.Who are your three favorite architects of all time?
Macdonald/(Raynor), Tillinghast and Ross.
2. Of the current architects, whose work do you admire the most? Why?
Either Pete Dye or Tom Fazio but not really anyone in the past 5-10 years. I’ve seen a couple of Steve Smyers’ (Wolf Run and Old Memorial) and Greg Norman’s courses (Medalist and Sugarloaf) that distinguish them and a Gene Bates design (Due Process in NJ) that was a lot of fun. I’ve not seen Mike Strantz’s work…… yet. I really liked some of Pete’s work before the TPC and PGA West era (the Golf Club, Honors, Teeth of the Dog and Harbour Town whenever it’s in great shape) and Tom’s Quarry Course at Black Diamond, GC of Tennessee, John’s Island West and Wade Hampton are good. I think both of them used the land well and incorporated their best design features in each course. When Jack Nicklaus had Bob Cupp and Jay Moorish as associates I thought some of those courses (Shoal Creek, Lochinvar, Desert Highlands, Sherwood, Melrose, etc.) were fun. I also like the first Colleton River.
3. What do you think of the courses that have been built this decade?
I find a lot of courses attractive, interesting and fun to play. I’m looking to have a good time, be challenged and kept interested with both the natural surroundings and the architect’s work. Huge bunkers, lakes and mounds turn me off as does the inability to walk because of long distances between holes.
4. Which five courses possess the most fascinating green complexes?
Winged Foot West (without question the best if the trees were thinned out), Merion East, Pine Valley, Somerset Hills and Pinehurst No.2. San Francisco would probably crack the top five if it weren’t for the new greens built in anticipation of losing some land for a highway a few years ago.
5. What are your favorite short par 3, short par 4 and short par 5?
#7 at Pebble Beach, #1 at Garden City and #13 at Augusta National.
6.If time and expense were not issues, which five courses in the world would you most like to play for the first time?
Royal Melbourne, Royal Dornoch, Royal Portrush, Sand Hills and Whistling Straits.
7.If a low-handicap friend from Great Britain were to come visit the U.S. for the first and only time, which 12 courses would you take him to see to show the best aspects of American architecture?
Prairie Dunes, Salem, Pine Valley, Merion East, The Golf Club, Fishers Island, Somerset Hills, World Woods, Cascades, Desert Forest, Cypress Point and Chicago Golf Club.
8.What are the ten most underrated courses with which you are familiar?
Yeamans Hall, Piping Rock, the Floridian, Mountain Ridge, Pine Needles, Valley Club, Indianwood Old, Due Process, Huntingdon Valley and Shoreacres.
9.You have read our write-up of the mythical Carthage Club. What are your thoughts? Do you think a course that short could fully challenge without the aid of thick rough and/or wind?
I think that if you use gravity as Carthage’s defense, as the links courses in Great Britain and Ireland do, then it could be quite challenging provided the turf is maintained relatively firm. There’s nothing wrong with an offline shot finding an awkward next shot. I’ve always thought that a good hole gives players more than one way to play it, but that by putting off hitting a good, aggressive shot the next shot is even more difficult. If you can include these two things, I think you will have a good course.
10.Tell us about your approach to preparing Shinnecock Hills for the 1995 U.S. Open. Were you pleased with the result?
I rode with P. J. Boatwright during the 1986 Open at Shinnecock and we spent a lot of time discussing the set up. It’s obviously easier to figure out nuances about a course that almost always is played in a strong wind after you’ve watched the best in the world play it during the Open and also had the luxury of playing it several times. I thought that some of the fairways were too narrow given the crosswinds and firmness of the ground. After my experience setting up Pinehurst #2 for the 1991 TOUR Championship I also thought that some of Shinnecock’s green surroundings would be more interesting with fairway height grass rather than long rough. The approach or philosophy was to widen fairways and surround greens with fairway. Fairways were widened to encourage the use of drivers in crosswinds and bring as many of the bunkers that were nearly obsolete because they were so far into the rough, into play. Wherever balls would roll away from greens, these areas were cut to fairway allowing players to chip, pitch or whatever thus creating something other than the typical US Open sand or lob wedge recovery shot. To satisfy the club, a new tee was built on #17 that made holding the green with a tee shot impossible except when played either into a headwind or a right to left wind. It was used only during the first round when conditions were exactly right. I was generally pleased with how the course played. The wind blew from three directions over the four rounds and briskly on Saturday. The ninth hole is just not good. It has a second shot that requires a fairway wood or long iron from a downhill lie for some. The steep bank in front of the green covered with rough proved to be too penal. A few members thought going into the Open that the course was too easy because of the wider fairways and lack of rough around all the greens. I ran into one at dinner after the second round and having ascended to the level of genius after two vodkas told him that he would be proven wrong by Sunday. After Pavin won shooting even par he, along with several of these members, told me how sorry they were they had stuck their noses into something they knew nothing about. Ironically, the changes made on the course for the 1995 Open are now liked by the membership and the course plays very similar to how it did for the event. The only problem is over watering the fairways-they are way too soft normally.
11.What, if anything, would you have done differently to set up Pinehurst No. 2 for the U.S. Open?
I think that overall the course was set up fairly well. My only changes were: 1) not use the new tee on #9 because the green was designed for a 140-160 yard shot, not another 185 yard shot like #17; 2) eliminate the diagonal tee shot landing areas with their respective tees-something easily done by standing on the greens, looking back towards the tee to determine from where Ross wanted approach shots to be played and then figure out where the fairway centers should be; 3) not try to get the greens too firm– well played approach shots should stay on the greens-on Saturday the only way for a ball to stay on the green was if it landed on the green’s up-sloped front, an area usually about three yards deep; and 4) primary rough mown to 2-3 inches–No.2 doesn’t need much rough, its defense is its greens and their surroundings.
12.Logistics aside, would Merion be a good venue for the U.S. Open?
Yes. There is probably no course in the US that requires more sound thinking and proper execution to score well. It has the best and most difficult last five holes in the world. The right changes to the fairway contours and the new tees on #’s 5 and 18 and wherever else some length could be found would really make it a great Open course. Players used irons off #’s 1, 7, 8, 10, 11 and 15 in the 1950, 1971 and 1981 Opens and it wasn’t considered too short then.
13.Is there one course that you would particularly like to see host the U.S. Open for the first time?
I guess LACC (north). It’s a good course but somewhat overrated more because of its exclusive membership than its course quality. The fact that its membership doesn’t want the event is frustrating to the USGA.
14.You played in last year’s U.S. Open at Olympic. What did you think of (a) the course and (b) the way it was set up?
Besides the location of the hole setting at #18 on Friday? Seriously, Olympic was one of my top 10 US courses before that week and I was involved with its selection for the 1998 event. Those two reasons were why I entered the Open. I was there for the 1987 Open and played on Sunday as a non-competing marker. Almost everything great about the course was still present that day because it had not dried out. In 1998, the course had lost much of its character by Thursday. It had been dried out to the extent that it was virtually impossible for tee shots to come to rest in some of the sloping fairways. Balls were rolling across the entire widths of the 4th, 5th, 9th and 17th fairways. I believe that depending on its geographic location, design, prevailing weather and natural turf texture, every great course has an optimum set up that highlights it. Even though unpredicted wind can make any set up too difficult, drying out unreasonably a course that has narrow fairways and deep, thick rough in a parkland setting goes beyond fairness. Great courses like Olympic, Shinnecock and Pinehurst #2 should be played as their designers meant them to be. Each course has its own distinguishing characteristics. They should be if anything enhanced during the Open, not disguised by unreasonably narrow fairways, overly penal rough, rock hard turf and poor cup placements.
15.How many present day golf course architects’ work do you admire and make the effort to see?
Between 5-10. I also enjoy seeing the renovation work that Tom Doak, Brian Silva, John LaFoy, etc, have done to the old courses.
16.How has your skill as a player helped you set up a course for the U.S. Open or a PGA Tour event?
There is a tendency for people who don’t play extremely well to over estimate the abilities of the TOUR players. TOUR players are very, very good but two things they have a difficult time overcoming are strong winds and gravity. By playing extremely well I mean hitting all types of shots comparable to the players in question. Someone possessing a single digit handicap who averages hitting 230 yard drives and takes 24 putts per round cannot identify with today’s TOUR player anymore than can a ten or 15 handicapper. Clearly playing comparable to them and playing the courses several times helped me understand the shot requirements. I never purposely set up any course, hole or shot that I was unable to play successfully myself. It amazed me during the 1991 Tour Championship that players would continually aim for flagsticks, ignoring the contour of greens, trying to get their ball close to the hole. Being a little off at the US Open or the big TOUR events (TPC, Memorial or Tour Championship) usually resulted in a missed green and a difficult recovery. I researched the architect’s design philosophy and blended it into the set up. Hole locations were never determined without considerable time putting when the greens were their fastest from all angles to make certain they were fair. Putts would usually be straighter than believed and easier than was the approach shot. I didn’t mind so much that a shot 20 feet from the hole was considered good. Frequently the 20 foot putt was easier to hole that way. I was forever trying to open up fairways so players would use drivers more.
17.What is your favorite amateur event to play in?
A four-way tie-the Coleman at Seminole, the Hugh Wilson at Merion, the Travis at Garden City and The Crump at Pine Valley. They all have great guys playing in them, great courses set up specifically for the event and memberships that want these events at their clubs.
18. Where do you place Seminole among Donald Ross’s work?
Only Pinehurst No.2 is better.